Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old daysSometimes it feels like this world’s gone crazyGrandpa, take me back to yesterdayWhen the line between right and wrongDidn’t seem so hazy
Coming back to Lahore after many years I needed to form connections between my memories (the good old days) and the environment I now found myself in, when the line between right and wrong does not seem to exist at all.
We all need a sense of continuity but those who leave the country struggle to find it. I had memories of school in Lahore, dashing up to my friends, entering class in a laughing, chattering line. I treasured memories of playing ‘kho’ and ‘four corners,’ netball and cricket, and sneaking out of the gate to buy forbidden snacks from roadside vendors. School was fun. Returning after many years, one of the foremost items on my list was to go see it again. Well, go I did but see I didn’t. The beautiful façade we were so proud of and were wont to take so much for granted was no longer visible behind the newly raised walls and we were not allowed in. It was like the peace we were also wont to take for granted, and which was no longer to be found.
That was six years ago. Today things are much worse. Students are barricaded inside schools, behind even more towering walls, knife edged wire and sealed gates, and understandably so. After the attack on school children in Peshawar surely it takes immense courage to send your child to school in Pakistan.
Other than those walls and gates which allow no one in or out of the school except during certain hours, each person coming into the school is scanned, and there are those harsh, grimly inscrutable security cameras. Armed snipers are stationed on the roof, emergency numbers for hospitals, ambulances and the police are posted in hallways and classrooms, and drills take place, a different drill for each kind of expected attack…run for your life, use this exit or that, or drop and play dead, like a new, grisly kho or four corners. In one school a tunnel is being dug leading out from the school to provide another exit in case of need. The tunnel commences in what was once the swimming pool which is naturally no longer used, since school sports, what there were, have disappeared in a crack of mirthless laughter. This is not cricket.
Yes, following the inhuman attack on school children in Peshawar and because of this necessary atmosphere of siege it takes immense courage to send your child to school in Pakistan.
A BBC report from before the attack in Peshawar says: ‘There have been almost 10,000 violent attacks on places of education in recent years, according to the biggest ever international study of how schools and universities are targeted by acts of aggression. These attacks included the murder of staff and students and the destruction of buildings in bomb and arson attacks, in countries including Pakistan, Nigeria, Colombia, Somalia and Syria. “They are bombed, burned, shot, threatened, and abducted precisely because of their connection to education.”
These five countries, including Pakistan, have much in common. According to the CIA fact files:
Oil rich Nigeria also suffers from poor power supply and poor infrastructure. Nigeria also suffers from pervasive corruption within its legislature, bureaucracy, trade, judiciary and security systems. Over 60% of its population lives in extreme poverty.
For Columbia as well, inequality, poverty, and drug trafficking continue to pose a significant challenge.
Somalia has no effective national government since the last one collapsed twenty years ago. The economy is largely agrarian. Its GDP ranks 166th in the world, lower even than Pakistan’s 88th.
Following international sanctions Syria’s economy contracted further, but also due to widespread infrastructure damage, reduced domestic consumption and production and sharply rising inflation. Ongoing conflict and economic decline have created a humanitarian crisis, including high rates of unemployment.
All these accounts are painfully to us in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s political and economic instability have led to inflation, its unemployment to high food prices and increased poverty. Its myriad issues relating to government revenues, energy production, the failure to gainfully employ a rapidly urbanising population, poor education and healthcare, are not being addressed.
Place these factors in whatever order you wish, the result is the same, a poverty stricken country with an uneducated, bitter population looking to express its anger. It needs an excuse, just one more thing, anything that rubs its nose in the dirt further for it to erupt. And here it is:
The above account of schools was of course for the Grammars, Aitchisons, Convents of this country. As usual things are different in less prosperous communities. Here, like a droll little moustache on an adolescent lip a strand of barbed wire lines the top of the school wall. That’s all. Nothing else. It says as clearly as if spoken: They matter, you do not.
The bulk of the population of Pakistan has had its nose well and truly rubbed in the dirt and we are witnessing the result. Change will come only following social uplift. For now, with the scenes from that monstrous attack on school children in Peshawar still fresh in our minds it takes immense courage to send your child to school in Pakistan.
Every once in a while a book comes along the likes of which you’ve never read before. ‘Elizabeth is Missing,’ Emma Healey’s first novel is one. It was short listed for a couple of awards, and in 2014 it won the Costa First Novel Award. That’s the same award won by Philip Pullman in 2001 for ‘Amber Spyglass’, the last novel of ‘His Dark Materials’ series.
Maud Horsham is an enchanting character, an elderly grandmother and mother of two who has lived through the first world-war, its rationing and air raids with her parents and her sister Sukey. Now a widow, Maud continues to live in the English village she grew up in. Carers drop by during the day, including her harassed daughter Helen and delightful granddaughter Katy, but she is otherwise on her own. It is an English twilight. Maud’s days are elaborately strewn with Oxfam, fish and chips, tea-cosies, vicars and buses. There is little regard for chronology, because that is how Maud, now ninety, thinks. Maud is senile. Her thoughts, never quite within her grasp, drift like smoke from the present to the past and back again in a jumble of events and characters alive and dead.
As though writing from the perspective of a forgetful ninety year old were not sufficiently daunting, Healey’s novel is a mystery story. Imagine a (very) distracted Miss Marple looking for someone, forgetting every so often what she is looking for. How do you search for someone when no one understands what you mean including, very often, yourself? When there is no one left who shares your memories to make sense out of your random utterances. When you must remind yourself of every small thing by means of notes, groping for them to remember what is niggling at the edge of your mind? When every person in your life morphs into someone else at the whim of your failing mind, and even your own daughter and granddaughter are often strangers?
Stories that delve into the minds of characters with specific issues help create awareness regarding those issues. In 1962 Ken Kasey wrote ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in which McMurphy, later so brilliantly portrayed by Jack Nicolson in the movie based on the book. McMurphy faked insanity and was committed to an asylum where he underwent electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). His experiences with that therapy were described in the book, in turn described by another character in the book, a nurse, as doing “the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack.’ The book helped change the practice of psychiatry in real life. According to a psychiatrist Dr Pittman, the book and movie helped remove ECT from mainstream psychiatric care by questioning whether psychiatry was being used for society’s purposes or for the purpose of helping people with mental illness.
Healey’s book potentially makes a similar contribution to geriatric issues (although that is not the purpose of the book) by writing about old age, its issues and the question of reality from the perspective of an elderly person with dementia.
There are bits of paper all over the house, shopping lists, recipes, telephone numbers, appointments, notes about things that have already happened. My paper memory. Its supposed to stop me forgetting things. But my daughter tells me I lose the notes. I have written that down too. And then I have this piece of paper tucked into my sleeve: ‘No word from Elizabeth.’ It has an old date. I have a horrible feeling something has happened to her.
From the perspective of a carer, Helen, Maud’s daughter and principle carer talks about her brother Tom and expresses her frustration in a fit of bitterness:
‘He flies in from Germany once a year and flies out again and you think he’s wonderful. But he’s not here day after day arranging your appointments and talking to your carers, checking your cupboards and taking you out shopping, buying you new underwear every time you lost yours and picking you up from police stations at two o’clock in the morning.’
A charming book, one that will stay with you, and make a difference to your views on old age and the elderly. Published in paperback by Random House, Penguin Books, 2014.